Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How this NGO brought the joy of learning to thousands of underprivileged children pan-India during the pandemic

Santosh Phad's ThinkSharp Foundation is taking smart devices equipped with free books and learning material to villages, so that underprivileged children are not left out during the pandemic

Published: Apr 28, 2021 01:04:53 PM IST
Updated: Apr 28, 2021 02:24:19 PM IST

Santosh Phad, Founder, ThinkSharp Foundation

For far too long, education for children in rural India has been set aside; for far too long, it has been brushed away as an after-thought. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic only made this situation worse. Sickness, paranoia and loss seemed to characterise everyday news, but one of the worst consequences of the lockdown was that all schools shut down. And there emerged a white-hot line between the privileged and the underprivileged. While those of us with the means to do so effortlessly switched to online learning with the support of our schools, the children of rural India were not so lucky. They could not afford devices, and even if some did, there were limitations to what they could do with those devices. That’s when ThinkSharp Foundation stepped into the lives of thousands of children around India, offering them a chance to learn from the comfort of their own homes amid a pandemic.  

Founded in 2011 as a non-profit organisation by Santosh Phad, ThinkSharp Foundation has a “giving back to society” approach. With the stringent COVID-19 lockdown firmly in place, the organisation was fearful that children would lose interest in schooling if there was a large gap in their education. The foundation quickly took steps to provide learning opportunities to rural children. It partnered with TribesForGood, a new-age platform for teenagers to initiate social projects, and volunteers raised Rs 6 lakh to buy tablets and smartphones. They could buy 40. At first glance, 40 devices seemed too small a number to help 150 children attending the Zilla Parishad school in the Ghore Budruk village of the Pune district learn. That’s when ThinkSharp Foundation devised a clever way to organise the distribution—based on neighbourhood or family, so that two-three children could share a single device. 
In December 2020, it also launched an android application, Digi Library, to provide free access to books and pdfs for children to read. This was primarily in partnership with Pratham Books, one of India’s largest publishing houses of children's books. The Digi Library app now has over 1,000 books available for download in three languages—English, Hindi and Marathi. To make sure the devices are used for the purpose of learning, the foundation introduced a system of mobile device management. “Through this system, we are able to remotely control each device—to prevent misuse—and are able to control the applications available to children. Currently, we have Zoom, YouTube Kids, Disha, Google Chrome and the Digi Library app downloaded on all the devices,” Phad says. 

A child learning on the Digi Library app

The foundation’s ‘Reader of the Month’ programme helps motivate the children to stay engaged in learning and reading. Children who put in good effort are rewarded with an appreciation certificate and a gift from the ThinkSharp Foundation. Notably, in the Zilla Parished School, Yuvraj Sonune (Std 6) read 64 PDF books and watched 57 video books in the month of February.
With this success, the Foundation is now looking to expand its reach to students in villages far away from 3G connectivity or even an internet connection. This will be done by downloading the necessary apps on the smart devices. The foundation is also currently in the process of making books available offline for perusal. These devices will then be delivered to the children for use.
So far, the ThinkSharp Foundation’s Digi Library has helped over 9,945 students in over 50 schools around India. “I am so happy that we are able to create a good impact on so many children in rural India,” Phad reflects.